Recently, I stood at the front of a room full of women as a conference presenter. Before I began the session, I glanced at my mentor, who sat in the front row. There wasn’t time for a quick pep talk and that was okay. After spending the week with her I knew her message was simple, yet effective: Lean in.
It was her go-to whenever I voiced concerns about a week filled with firsts: facilitating my first grants panel meeting, presenting at my first women’s conference, and attending two college commencement ceremonies for my first-born twin sons – lean in, she said, lean in.
“Lean in” was in reference to researcher and New York Times bestselling author Brené Brown, who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy.
The concept is simple: Instead of numbing ourselves in difficult situations, “lean” into vulnerability and fragility. The practice of leaning into vulnerability to get to courage isn’t always easy. Brown encourages those attempting this practice to “embrace the suck.”
By leaning into the suck we can model a way forward for ourselves and others to love and see ourselves for who we are.
The more I learned about “leaning in,” I realized the practice was modeled by my sons long before I knew that’s what they were doing.
This May I have three children graduating – my twin sons, Austin and Kyle, from college and my daughter from high school. And my sixth-grader is quick to remind me that he is graduating from elementary school to junior high.
There is much to celebrate in May including mental health awareness month.
Watching Austin and then Kyle graduate brought up different feelings at each event.
As my oldest child, if even by a minute, Austin set the bar high: double major, magna cum laude, rugby player and president of his college’s Habitat for Humanity chapter. He killed it. There wasn’t anything Austin didn’t accomplish in his four years of college including studying abroad and starting his college career at the University of Wyoming so he could be with his twin brother for the first two years.
I don’t know many siblings that would postpone their out-of-state college plans to attend Wyoming’s only four-year university with their brother.
But Austin did. During their senior year in high school, Kyle was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Austin knew the battle Kyle faced with his mental health and didn’t want him to go it alone. Austin leaned in. And so did Kyle.
By leaning into the unknown, they thrived. Neither of them allowed the stigma of mental illness to affect what they did. They roomed together their freshman year, pledged the same fraternity and were there for each other that fall when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
They also argued over the car they shared, laundry, and cleaning duties. They locked each other out of their dorm room, ate the other’s food, and collectively pointed the finger at the other when their carpet was stained with jungle juice.
In short, they were 18-year-olds adjusting to college life.
They treated Kyle’s mental health no differently than they would any other illness that required medication and maintenance. And in turn, they created an environment where shame, fear and silence had no place to survive, which allowed Kyle to thrive. They leaned into mental health the same way they leaned into the new experience of college.
Stigma is toxic to those with mental health issues because it creates an environment where shame, fear and silence prevents many people from seeking help and treatment.
By collectively leaning in, they broke the perception and stigma associated with mental illness.
Austin spent the spring semester of his sophomore year abroad while Kyle stayed the course in Laramie. Austin finished his college education in Ohio and Kyle finished his degree in Wyoming. Four years later they are both college graduates.
Since 1949, Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in May, reaching millions.
This cause is important to me on many levels: One in five Americans is affected by mental health conditions. As the mom of a young adult with a mental health condition, raising awareness about mental health and eliminating the stigma is important.
I understand all too well about breaking the stigma. My son’s diagnosis caused me to check my assumptions about mental illness.
The myths about people with mental health problems are great. A leading myth is that people with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.
Not true. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service breaks down myths with facts. And the facts are that the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don’t even realize it, because many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.
Mental illness does not discriminate- mental health disorders affect men and women of all ages, races and social classes.
The more we lean into the mental health, the greater a chance we have to break the stigma.